Did you know there is an easy trick you can use to know when your family cow is getting enough to eat? When I first became a cow owner, I agonized over whether Maybelle was happy, healthy, and getting enough to eat. After constantly wondering, “Is my cow too skinny?” I was thrilled when we moved to our new homestead. It meant she would get enough forage and we wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Perhaps you’re in the same boat. Trying to squeeze as much farm life as you can onto a small spot of earth you call your own. Many of us are on limited pasture supply. Or trying to conserve as much as we can on our feed bill. I know “they” say a cow only needs X amount of pasture or hay a day, but are they really getting enough to eat? “They” said our Dexter only needed ½ a bale a day and we learned that was certainly not the case pretty quickly!
This is just another reason why it’s so important to keep good homesteading records. When you know how to check for an empty rumen then changes in feed or management enable you to track patterns and better understand your cow’s dietary needs.
Quick Tip: Use the SmartSteader homestead management app for your phone or paper-based Homestead Management Printables to help you keep better records!
Since we’ve learned the basics of keeping a family cow, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves. These allow us to better husband our animals. And the easiest one for knowing if our cow is well-fed is to learn where her rumen is and check the rumen daily to make sure it’s full.
Let me show you where the rumen is. Holly will demonstrate.
How to Check the Rumen and Know if a Dairy Cow is Getting Enough To Eat
We put her away overnight with no feed so that her rumen was on the empty side and I could get a photo for you. Apparently, it was cold that night and she decided to keep warm and disgrace herself by lying in a pile of her own waste as she is wont to do from time to time.
See that pocket of sunken flesh in the shape of a triangle inside the red circle? That’s the area you’ll want to pay attention to. Her rumen is in there.
I badly wanted to make myself an easy mnemonic device and say “Rumen is on the right,” but it’s not. No easy way to remember it, but the fact is the rumen is on the left side. And the left side only.
Holly is a dairy cow (and a cull cow from an organic dairy no less). Holly’s right side looks like that circled area pretty much all of the time. A fact that usually led me to panic from time and again until I sorted that whole right side, left side thing out in my head. I kept thinking she was starving.
Here’s a shot from another angle. You can really see how hollow that space is behind her ribs. She’s one hungry mama!
Flash forward to later in the day. (Ok fine, it was a week later because I kept forgetting to go out in the evening and take another photo.) This is how she looks with a fuller rumen. (And a cleaner hide.)
When I went out, she had actually just stood up and started eating again, so she’s not even as full as she could be, or would be in an hour. It’s totally ok to see that entire hollow area rounded out and you should learn to recognize what is normal for your cow so that you can easily discern when she has a full rumen or if you’re dealing with bloat. (If that same area distends beyond “full” you need to assess whether you cow has bloat.)
How to Check the Rumen and Know if a Beef Cow is Getting Enough To Eat
Let’s move on to our next example.
This is #144. I don’t believe you’ve met yet.
She hasn’t an official proper name because the children spent so long scrapping over it, they forgot to name her. I’ve yet to nickname her and I’m sure that when I do, it will be what sticks.
She is the new beef heifer that we’ll be breeding and then her future offspring will provide us with a steady supply of beef each winter. At least that’s the plan. All I know is we can’t depend on Jersey beef to keep us in the beefy business when it could be 2-3 years between freezer refills.
I find it much more difficult to tell when #144’s rumen is empty. Her diet was also restricted and while you can see a slight indentation there, it is certainly much less pronounced.
Suggested Read: Can I Own a Dairy Cow (Or Goat) AND Still Have a Life?
Both photos were taken at the same time as Holly’s. You can see that #144’s side is rounder in the 2nd photo. But it’s not like a “wow” kind of difference.
Other easy signs that a rumen is healthy and full are whether she is looking dreamily content and chewing cud (I love watching them. It’s almost hypnotic and so relaxing.) And if you’re hearing their bubbly guts doing their work while you’re brushing or caring for them, then you know that giant fermentation chamber in their body is doing its job.
I’m not sure if it works the same way for goats who are also ruminants (Any goat readers? How do you tell?), but this trick worked for our Cheviot sheep when we had them. And full, happy sheep are sheep that are more likely to stay inside the fence.
Which makes me happy.
You might also want to check out some related articles on our website like Why We Feed Our Family Milk Cow Grain and Cow vs Goat: Which Should You Raise on Your Homestead?